The Journal of San Diego History
April 1966, Volume 12, Number 2
Elvira L. Wittenberg, Editor
Tim MacNeil, Asst. Editor

By Dale Reynolds

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The Greek Theatre, which is today located on the California Western University campus, is perhaps one of the most majestic and inspiring edifices in Southern California. Although it is situated just above the surf of the Pacific, it did not spring from the ocean as its situation might provoke the imagination to believe. There is a fascinating history behind the awesome splendor of this theatre which dates back to 1901.

In 1897, Madame Katherine Tingley purchased a sanitarium from Dr. Lauren Wood. It was Madame Tingley’s dream to found “an Athens of the West” at Point Loma. A dynamic woman who believed in working to make her dream a reality, Madame Tingley became the leader of the Theosophical Society in 1896 and in February, 1898 changed the name to the Universal Brotherhood and Theosophical Society. After purchasing the sanitarium, she changed its name to the Academy (Homestead) and used it as a living quarters and as a schoolroom for the fine arts. In 1900, she completed the construction of this building by adding a stain-glass dome and then built the circular Temple of Peace, situated next to the Academy. Soon after the completion of this structure, excavations were begun at the head of a natural canyon for a Greek Theatre. The first soil was turned on July 1st. 1901. Little digging was actually needed because of the canyon’s original shape. By November of 1901, eleven semicircular tiers of wood had been erected. The ground around which the amphitheatre was built was packed down and used for calisthenics and as a meeting center.

The doric stoa which Madame Tingley used for productions was constructed in late 1910 and early 1911. It was a direct copy of the theatre at Taormina, Sicily, a style of architecture known as Magna Graecian. By November of 1911, a cement floor replaced the packed dirt which lay between the stoa and the semicircular tiers. Immediately after this, a ground-breaking ceremony for the School of Antiquity took place.

The first major performance in the Greek Theatre under Madame Tingley’s direction was The Aroma of Athens, a play written by the Theosophists to depict the feelings of the Greek philosophers at the outbreak of the Peloponnesian War (431 B.C.). Aroma was first performed at the Isis Theatre, a Theosophist-owned theatre in the downtown area of San Diego which Madame Tingley had purchased in 1902 and was formerly known as the Fisher Opera House. The Greek Theatre was opened to the public for the first time for the production of Aroma on April 17, 1911. The performances were staged at night (except for one matinee, April 20) and outdoor electrical lighting was used to illuminate the stage. This was probably the first use in America of outdoor theatrical lighting. It is interesting to note that the first production in this unusual theatre (Fig. 3) received very favorable reviews from the three prominent San Diego newspapers. On April 19, 1911, the San Diego Union acclaimed the production as “a new form of drama.” The San Diego Tribune stated on April 20th that, “The Greek Festival has a unique setting. A combination of blue ocean and brown hillsides makes a picture that defies the areatest art to reproduce on canvas.” The San Diego News on April 19 reported that “The lighting was superb.” “When the concealed electric lights were turned on, a subdued murmur of delight could be heard.” The News went on to comment, “. . . on all these (costumes) the modern spotlight played and its changes of colors gave a new beauty to the costumes.” The acoustics of the theatre was praised by all critics who reviewed the performance.

Lighting was situated on poles located on the northern and southern ends of the amphitheatre. Additional lighting was later placed on light “trees” at the eastern entrance to the theatre. Lines were strung across these poles and several large lamps were spaced evenly above the tessellated cement floor. Three hundred light bulbs illuminated the inside of the temple itself. Further lighting innovations were constructed in 1912 when a spotlight booth was built atop the tiered seats facing the stage. This lighting proved ineffectual, however, because the spotlight booth was not sufficiently elevated, so the spotlights were moved to the top of the booth. In 1911 the small temple was moved from its traditional spot alongside the stoa to the top of the opposite hillside. It was used as a band room until 1922.

The first Shakespearean production staged at the Greek Theatre was Midsummer Night’s Dream. Madame Tingley directed the nonprofessional actors in this 1915 production. Although the actors were of amateur standing, they spoke their lines with a degree of conviction and understanding rarely achieved in such a production. Adding to the effectiveness of the presentation was the use of children in portraying the fantastic elfin society of the drama. Madame Tingley often wrote in special scenes for the children of the Point Loma community. Other productions of Shakespeare in this theatre were Twelfth Night (1918) and As You Like It (1917).

Although Aroma and Midsummer were revived, the next major Greek production in this theatre did not take place until 1922 when Madame Tingley directed the Eumenides. A second small temple was built for this production and was placed to the right of the audience. Prior to this in 1898, M. Tingley had directed a production of this same drama in New York. There was also an outdoor presentation staged in 1899 at Point Loma. Mr. Iverson Harris, Jr., who later became Madame Tingley’s traveling secretary, was eight years old when his father took him to see this night-time, outdoor production on the hill just south of the theatre.

The last new production which Madame Tingley directed in the theatre was The Tempest in 1926. The last play produced at Point Loma under the Theosophists was again Midsummer Night’s Dream, revived in May, 1928. Shortly after this, on one of her customary trips to the European Theosophical Centers, she was involved in an automobile accident in Osnabruck, Germany on June 25th, 1929, from which she suffered two broken legs. Three weeks later on July 11, she died of a heart attack at Visingso, Sweden. With her demise the Theosophist dramatic productions at Point Loma came to an end. Her successor, as head of the Theosophical Society, Dr. G. de Purucker, had not the interest nor the time for drama and placed most of the Society’s efforts on intellectual activities.

Throughout the 1930s, the Greek Theatre was used only for Point Loma High School productions and graduation ceremonies. In 1942, the Theosophical Society sold the site of the theatre and the land surrounding it to Mr. George Wood, who subsequently leased it to tenants.

Four eight-by-eight inch corner posts embedded in concrete piers extending completely through the deck of the structure were installed to add to the strength of the construction and to avoid costly structural problems. Also, the lighting facilities were improved in the reconstruction with twenty outlets replacing the original three hundred. The roof structure was completed and installed on January 26th, 1959 and the entire structure was completed by March 1st of the same year. Dramatic activity was resumed in the theatre in 1962 with a production of Antigone by the University’s theatre department.

In 1965, the administration of California Western University decided that the theatre could be best used by presenting a summer cultural event for the University students and for interested members of the San Diego community. (In June of that year, a second small temple was built and placed to the left of the audience. This balanced off the effect of the first small temple erected in September, 1922.) The First American Greek Repertory Festival was presented which included three dramas of ancient Greece and a performance of the San Diego Ballet Company. Between July 9th and August 29th, there were presented three ballet performances and eight performances each of Lysistrata, Hippolytus, and Oedipus Rex. San Diego Magazine lauded the Festival and offered this plea for support on its behalf: “California Western’s American Greek Repertory Festival is an important contribution to San Diego culture and I hope as audiences we can give it enough support to keep it going and improving.”

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[This electronic issue of the Journal was scanned and proofread by Cassius Zedaker.]